/ 5 February 2023

Writer tells a lot, shows little

Blazing A Trail
Blazing A Trail by Lincoln Mali (supplied)

In the recently published Blazing a Trail: Lessons for African Leadership, author Lincoln Mali notes that he undertook this project to offer “an alternative path in a context of a growing lack of trust in corporate, civil society and public service leaders”.

The former student activist, education ministry spokesperson and Standard Bank banker (with 19 years’ experience), narrates an admirable upbringing for a child who grew up in the township. 

His is a household with two deeply involved and present parents — something rare in black life. His recollection of biographical facts is sometimes couched in incertitude and prevarications. 

As a reader, one naturally relates to the author’s conventional wisdom. The book is littered with such nuggets as, “What I learnt from my dad was more caught than taught.” 

However, what seems to be glaringly missing in the author-narrator’s formative life is a sense of family life with his siblings, Linda and Jongisizwe (known as JB). He mentions them almost begrudgingly. Their names appear in half a line a piece, in the 327-page volume. 

One supposes from this that Lincoln fabricates — not in a negative way, but as an artist would curate a show. He curates aspects of his life that stand him in good stead with greats, such as Nelson Mandela, whom he greatly admires. These are people he is wont to name-drop at the slightest provocation. Perhaps this is to bolster his own leadership profile or sense of greatness. 

There’s a constant return to the author’s father as a figurehead of wisdom. Owing to Mr Mali’s privileged access to ANC national leadership — “learning at the feet of Mandela” — as he puts it in one chapter, his now deceased father enjoys a status of prestige in the book. He’s on par with this ANC crop. 

In this manner, Lincoln Mali marshals the biographic as a work of interested emplotment. There’s a double whammy here — the book is both a tribute to his maverick father and to his maverick self. The author contrives an entire chapter to marvel at Mandela’s “wit”, “compassion” and allayed “white anxieties”.

Mr Mali is prone to the superfluous even as he plots his story from a Damascus moment of his teen years.  While still a budding student activist in the 1980s, he had a life-changing conversation with his father. He charges that it is this kind of leadership, modelled by his father and one he sees in people like Mandela, which shaped his propensity for great achievements. 

Throughout the book, Mali models his leadership style and the self-help toolkit he endorses as a vision of noble leadership to aspire to. “Despite the hardship of the township… [we] moved beyond the oppression and [made] a life for ourselves,” he writes.  

His book might be great for entry-level English language comprehension and could be stomached by readers who do not mind your Chika Onyeani’s Capitalist Nigger. Worse than that, he feels too contrived. He shields his vulnerability and hides behind postscript endorsements and quotes. He tells a lot and shows very little. He trades in nebulous injunctions and baseless declarative: “Leaders we need now are hidden in plain sight …”; “Many are just focused on having a job at the expense of accessing their full potential.”

Something quite redeeming about the author is that he traces his family to five generations, both his maternal and paternal families. His mixed-race maternal side is traced back to settler immigrants and polygamous mid-19th century Malis, respectively. 

When Mr Mali musters the nerve to leave his sharply individuated outlook, and agency on steroid evangelism, to dabble on structural and systemic matters, he lists laws that were not only impactful in shaping the general psyche of society but his immediate filial space. 

The septic tank ablution improvisation at a time of no waterborne toilet provision in Kwazakhele during apartheid stands out as exemplary. In this way, his father fought to restore their sense of dignity as Malis. This feat, however, also marks both a curious class incongruence  and a sense of under-interrogated exceptionalism Mali advocates for.

In a redeeming attitude to demystify the near-sainthood magnanimity and benevolence associated with Mandela’s leadership, the author inserts his father in this continuum of extraordinary servanthood that can be emulated (by the ordinary). Whether one can step outside this ANC leadership echo chamber is something for another time.

There is something about the author’s activism era, the mid-to-late 1980s, that seems sandwiched between a dying period and one being born. 

He writes that he belonged to “youth who were determined to make South Africa ungovernable”; “interested in the bitter fight to the end …” He adds that he was “charged for torching a primary school”; “felt his life in freefall”; was “expelled” and was part of underground political activity at an age too young to masticate the nuances of politics. 

Accused of a crime that the author bemoans “undermined our credentials and soiled the image of the liberation movement”, he goes on to cite a botched attempt to skip the country to join Umkhonto weSizwe (information was anticipated by apartheid intelligence). 

He writes: “I lost my innocence and was firmly on a different path to the one [I] originally envisaged.” He dabbled in “a life of danger and uncertainty …” but claims to have maintained “fidelity to values of the liberation struggle”.

Many young people in mid-1980s Port Elizabeth may not have returned to school after many fits and starts at this UDF-led juncture of struggle, were it not for Lincoln Mali. The author credits himself for this progressive move of convincing his UDF ilk to drop the hardline stance of “liberation before education.” Here Mali sits on a gemstone of a little-mined era of struggle. Indeed, he seems to actively block it by spending much time writing about his international banking life at Standard Bank.

If the author were able to think beyond his turn away from militant politics and vigilantism, beyond the conventional wisdom of wrong and right, he might have struck a serious chord with readers from this era or readers interested in this gap in the Port Elizabeth tussle of politics between the Freedom Charter and the Black Consciousness bloc. 

Professor Vuyisile Msila, writing about Mzwandile Maqhina, who hails from Port Elizabeth and was of the latter ideological line, goes into some detail on this. A less sheltered student-activist leader view might  have shed more interesting light.

Following the Martinican psychoanalyst scholar Frantz Fanon, one quickly figures out that fighting for freedom is not merely reacting to repression and achieving the end goals of struggle against sociopolitical denials. But it is also to constantly guard against the temptation to colonise the noble cause of struggle into a fiefdom of one’s whim. It is always to open one’s greatest conviction to doubt and one’s unbending line of march to healthy scepticism. Lincoln Mali misses this opportunity to chart a fresh iteration of struggle.

He rather sounds like some change-management industrial psychologist when he talks of the near-magical powers of a “good leader”. His idea of good leadership is a demiurge endowed with maximal benevolence and zero malfeasance, a certain figurehead with powers to reconfigure our sociopolitical world.

Blazing A Trail: Lessons for African Leadership by Lincoln Mali is published by Kwela and costs R320.